The case for reforming Britain’s draconian but ineffective drugs laws is a robust one, which is why this newspaper has long championed change. If that discussion has not taken place, it is partly because no politician wants to be seen as the druggies’ friend, and because proponents of reform are routinely silenced by the simple means of derision. They are dismissed as louche metropolitan types who “would say that, wouldn’t they?” In other words, they want a little legal cover for their own bad habits, and are making a case from motives that are far from disinterested.
It is an unfair representation of the argument, a travesty even, but it has been most effective as a silencing tactic, which is why it will be interesting to see how die-hard supporters of the status quo on drugs respond to Mike Barton. No trendy north London liberal, the Chief Constable of Durham has called for controlled, not free, access to certain drugs for addicts principally on the grounds that “prohibition hands revenue streams to villains”.
Much of the power of the argument in favour of continued prohibition rests on the claim that, of the would-be reformers, those who do not have a selfish interest in changing the drugs laws are naïve liberals who do not know what they dealing with. That can hardly be said of such an experienced crime-fighter as Mr Barton, who makes the salient point that of the 43 organised crime groups operating in his area, most of them earn their money, and thereby gain their prestige, primarily from the supply of illegal drugs.
To supporters of reform this is all familiar territory, but as so often in matters as sensitive as this, what matters is not so much the content of the argument but the source. Now that the Chief Constable has spoken out in this fashion, and so unexpectedly, we must hope the calls for change are treated with the respect that they deserve.